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Brooks Atwood: Engineering meets art with hair-raising results for local visionary artist

By DIANNE RUSSELL

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have. –Maya Angelou

Laguna resident Brooks Atwood certainly proves that statement to be true. To label him “innovator” doesn’t fully describe the scope of his past and present roles as artist, architect, design consultant, actor, television host, educator, provocateur and co-founder of Berries Design.

“I’ve done a million things as I think many people have,” Atwood said. “I’m definitely one who has had multiple professions and multiple past lives.”

In his current life, Atwood has gained fame as the lead innovator on the “dream team” on Netflix’s new show Hack My Home, which debuted on July 7. Filmed in Atlanta, in each of the eight half-hour episodes, the squad “hacks” a home. The other “dream team” members are Mikel Welch (head of design), Ati Williams (head of construction) and Jessica Banks (head of engineering). According to Atwood, the reality show offers a rare look into what goes into a home renovation – all through the lens of innovation.

Picture computer monitors rising out of a dining room table to transform it into an office desk, a loft stairway that folds against the wall like a sculpture, small appliance storage that drops down from the ceiling, and a bevy of hidden drawers and secret doors.

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With his unique style, Atwood, seated in the lobby of the Hotel Laguna, is immediately recognizable. He credits his wife Gianna for his fashions and “look.”

Atwood’s work as a designer and educator earned him the distinction of being named one of the “world’s innovative creators” by Eyes In Magazine and one of six “Emerging US Designers” by the Museum of Arts & Design in New York City. Brooklyn Magazine named him “One of the Most Important Names in Brooklyn Design.” He has received numerous awards and co-founded two companies – Berries Design and Pod Design.

Television

“I’ve had multiple experiences as far as television goes,” said Atwood. “I was on HGTV’s design competition show Design Star, season eight. I made it to the finale, which was very exciting – being on a reality competition show is kind of like being kidnapped, it’s exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.”

Atwood’s stint on Design Star resonated with the audience. “I think it was the authenticity or uniqueness, something people had never seen before on that scale, and so a lot of people watched the show,” he said. After the first episode, a management company contacted him, and, as a result, he got an agent.

Official trailer for “Hack My Home,” now on Netflix, #5 in the U.S. at the time of this publication

“I was talking to the company 51 Minds about developing shows around me, and it just took a while to find a show to fit with my talents,” Atwood said. “When this show came to them three years ago, they immediately thought of me. Then we spent a year doing chemistry tests to find other castmates, which involved Zoom calls almost every week with four different people to see what the chemistry was with the other castmates. I knew Mikel from HGTV, but I didn’t know the two women, Ati and Jessica. We did a test filming in person in Los Angeles, and the chemistry was definitely there. It’s great to work with three people who have totally different backgrounds, opinions and experiences.”

The show was filmed entirely in Atlanta, Ga. “Everyone is filming in Atlanta because of the tax incentive,” Atwood said. “I had breakfast with Susan Sarandon at a local restaurant.”

While on location, he picked up another design job just by happenstance. “I was living in an apartment building and one day, a woman in the elevator said, ‘I loved you on HGTV. My fiancé and I just bought this house, we want to get married there, would you do our house?’ So, they hired Berries. The house is very cool, and we did some imaginative things such as a secret door to their master suite hidden in a giant wall of bookcases.” The whole project took 8-12 months.

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Atwood attracted audience attention on “Design Star”

“I was working at night and during breaks in filming Hack My Home, doing sketches and presentations on my iPad,” Atwood explained.

“During filming, each day was different and jam-packed. We’d start early and end late. It took a year to develop the show, a year to do the chemistry tests to find the cast, and then a year to film and edit.”

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Background

Atwood’s background is as impressive as his creativity. Born in Kalamazoo, Mich., he lived in Fort Wayne and South Bend, Ind., Naperville, Ill. and Winston Salem, N.C. “Both of my parents were creative,” he said. “My dad was an engineer and lived in Virginia. When I visited him during the summers, he’d have me build things, so my building creative mind was always active. My dad approached it from an engineering perspective, and I approached it from the art and beauty perspective. It was fun and led me into architecture.”

In 1994, Atwood joined the Illinois Institute of Technology, graduating with a Bachelor of Architecture degree with high honors in 1999 and was given the valedictorian spot. After completing his bachelor’s degree, he spent a year in Paris studying architecture and then returned to earn his Master of Science in Advanced Architectural Design in 2003 at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

Atwood became an architect and project designer for Archi-Tectonics in 2003 and established POD Design (which later became Brooks Atwood Design) in August of the same year.

“I started my own company with two colleagues from Columbia (Clay Odom and Maria Del Mar Granados) and during the time we were starting the company, we were working day jobs (I was teaching architecture and product design at the New Jersey Institute of Technology), and then during lunch and at night, we would moonlight. After my partners left, I kept the company, which had 12-15 employees. We were doing all kinds of different projects from products like chairs and light fixtures to really avant-garde things such as making 3D printed rings and 3D printed silverware. We would intentionally mess up the computer code and let it print all night long to see what would happen.”

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Comfortable in any setting

In September 2010, Atwood became assistant director of the Idea Factory, although he left the post in 2013. From June 2009 to September 2016, he was also an Adjunct Part-time Faculty member for the School of Constructed Environments at Parsons School of Design.

Coming to Laguna

Atwood eventually settled in Los Angeles and ended up in Laguna because of his wife Gianna Wurzl, whose mother grew up here. Impressive in her own right, Wurzl, an entrepreneur, strategist and experienced designer, co-founded Berries with Brooks, her third company.

“We moved to Laguna in February 2021, right before my daughter Olympia was born,” said Atwood. “We were living in Los Feliz, and already having an 8-year-old son, I knew once you have a kid, you’re not moving. I’d never been to Laguna, had never heard of it. I met Gianna in Los Angeles at a friend’s birthday party, and she’s the one who brought me here. Her grandfather had lived here also and was quite a famous artist. While Gianna was pregnant, we visited Laguna with my son, and I thought ‘this place is paradise, why are we living in Los Angeles?’ On February 20, we moved here, and our daughter Olympia was born on April Fool’s Day a couple of months later.” His son Fitzgerald was born in 2014 in New York City.

“I loved everything about L.A., but then I found Laguna,” Atwood said. “This is the place we need to live, it’s wonderful and no other place is like it.”

They quickly integrated into the community. “Gianna and I redesigned the Holiday Inn, it hasn’t been renovated yet,” Atwood said. “And I go to City Hall once a month to propose design initiatives. My first one was that any storefront space that’s empty for 30 days, must be turned over to an artist for a temporary workspace. The owner of the building gets paid and the artist has a space to work. This is a community founded by artists, but artists can’t afford to live here. Visitors could walk by and see artists working. I’m also trying to become involved in the renovation of the library. We have ideas that could generate revenue for the city – the library could pay for itself. Since it’s a perfect space for weddings and community events, it could be designed to let in additional light and take advantage of the ocean view – and then rented out. Libraries no longer work as libraries, they need to be multifunctional.”

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Atwood is now part of the beach culture

Acclimating fully to the town’s beach culture, Atwood learned to surf. “I wanted to learn to surf before I turned 50. I didn’t know about the ocean because I’m from the Midwest, and I almost drowned swimming out of Sleepy Hollow. Then I took a surfing lesson from Moe at Laguna Surf and Sport and was instantly hooked. I grew up playing sports, so my muscle memory is good, and I have great balance, which helps. I’ve been surfing as much as possible. The three things in life I enjoy are surfing, sailing by myself and being alone on a motorcycle driving across the country, which I did. I drove from Brooklyn to Dallas, Texas and back.”

Berries – design the way you make love

Berries Design, the company Wurzl and Atwood co-founded, reflects their vision of design. It was born from love and is alive to give others the experience of falling in love with ideas, with creativity, with innovation, with possibility.

It came into being as a result of “two humans who met dancing one night.” As Atwood described, “Then under red lights, barefoot in the kitchen, fingertips flavored with soft cheese, they ate berries. Blackberries. They fell in love under the spell of sweet tongues and the comfort of never asking if it was ok.”

Berries encompasses a range of projects including boutique hotels, captivating interiors for esteemed Los Angeles residences and furniture designs.

“We design with the entire experience in mind,” said Atwood. “A bedroom is not just a room you sleep in. A hotel is not just a place to stay while traveling. These memories – and moments – have the capacity to provoke feelings and remind us we aren’t robots, but humans who are in the process of remembering. At Berries, we ask, ‘How does it feel?’ Until our clients say, ‘It feels like being in love,’ we keep creating.”

Residents can see some of Berries’ design work right here in town.

“My wife and I designed the Holiday Inn,” Atwood said. “We restored the grandeur and put in a community space downstairs and a place to keep surfboards. Gianna and I work together – and separately – but together we’re even more magical. However, independently she’s doing magical things as well, creating companies with the leading women of the world. If she’s not creating a company, she’s strategizing another and building platforms.

“We don’t like to manage each other, so Gianna is doing those projects all alone, and I’m writing a children’s book with Laguna artist Jo Allen (aka Dirty Eraser) called Moss and Lichen. Allen used to be a moss scientist, and now she’s an artist and the author of two books. One of her books is about Laguna Beach – it’s called The Accidental Naturalist: Exploring the Flora and Fauna of Laguna Beach and Beyond.”

There seems to be no end to Atwood’s imaginative energy. He appears to be equally comfortable in each of his roles, which are all infused with his innovative spirit. It’s as if he has plugged into some creative electricity with no end in sight – and his hair reaffirms it.

For more information on Berries Design, go to www.berries.design.

For more information on Gianna Wurzl, go to www.giannawurzl.com.

For more information on Jo Allen, go to www.dirtyeraser.com.

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO - Shaena@StuNewsLaguna.com

Lana Johnson, Editor - Lana@StuNewsLaguna.com

Tom Johnson, Publisher - Tom@StuNewsLaguna.com

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor.

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Mary Hurlbut and Scott Brashier are our photographers.

Alexis Amaradio, Dennis McTighe, Marrie Stone, Sara Hall, Suzie Harrison and Theresa Keegan are our writers and/or columnists.

In Memoriam - Stu Saffer and Barbara Diamond.

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